Incubator farms nurture agriculture entrepreneurs

Associated Press Online
July 26, 2014 Saturday 4:48 PM GMT

Incubator farms nurture agriculture entrepreneurs

by MARY ESCH, Associated Press
ITHACA, N.Y.

ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) – A physicist from Armenia, a juice-maker from
Bermuda and a Burmese sushi chef are crafting new careers in
agriculture under a program that applies the business incubator model
to farming.

The Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming is one of dozens of
incubator farms springing up around the country to nurture the next
generation of agricultural entrepreneurs. The projects help would-be
farmers get started by providing a plot of land, shared equipment,
mentoring on business planning and marketing, and the opportunity to
build a track record of success that will help them qualify for
startup loans when they’re ready to launch their own farms.

“It’s giving me an opportunity to implement business ideas that I
hadn’t had a chance to before,” said Damon Brangman, 43, an immigrant
from Bermuda who wants to grow his own vegetables for the mobile juice
business he runs with his wife in Ithaca. “I’m looking to buy or lease
land, but there’s more risk and cost involved. This was more within my
reach.”

The 10-acre farm in Ithaca, in New York’s Finger Lakes region 140
miles west of Albany, is now in its second growing season with
Brangman and two other farmers tilling quarter-acre plots that they
can use for three years. Surik Mehrabyan, 54, came to upstate New York
with a contract for physics research at Cornell University, but after
it ended, he wanted to return to the agrarian lifestyle he grew up
with in Armenia.

“My goal is to understand what to grow to make a living,” Mehrabyan
said as he spaded stony soil to build a raised bed in his plot at
Groundswell. “All the time, I’m doing different experiments and
finding markets, planning. For me, it’s most important to get
established with buyers before I invest in land.”

Ye Myint, 47, a native of Myanmar, is growing sushi cucumbers and
greens such as gongura and water spinach, which are popular in Asian
communities. “I have a deal with a Burmese grocery store in Syracuse
to buy gongura,” said Myint, who makes sushi for the Cornell
University food service.

There are about 105 incubator farms in 38 states, many of them still
in the planning stage or just a few years into operation, according to
the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative at Tufts University in
Massachusetts. The program, launched in 2012, advises new incubator
farms and helps farmers connect with them.

More than half the farms serve immigrants and refugees, but others
nurture a range of new farmers including young people, career changers
and retirees.

In 2008, new grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program spurred a number of
incubator programs into existence. The USDA program was a response to
the rising average age of U.S. farmers and the 8 percent projected
decrease in the number of farmers from 2008 to 2018. The 2014 farm
bill includes $100 million for the program.

“The barriers to getting into this industry are so large that we have
to come up with new strategies to get people on the land,” said
Jennifer Hashley, project director of the New Entry Sustainable
Farming Project, parent organization of the Incubator Training
Initiative.

A network of mentor farmers is key to the success of the incubator
farm, said Joanna Green, director of the Groundswell Center. “The
farmers we work with are really interested in helping the next wave
get started and succeed,” Green said. Groundswell’s oversight team
also includes advisers from Cornell’s horticulture department and farm
credit organizations.

The New Entry incubator program requires farmers to pay startup costs
including a $175 fee for a quarter-acre plot, plus the cost of their
seeds, nursery pots and other supplies. Farmers must take a farm
business planning course and write a plan that will be refined at the
end of the growing season. In the first year, some earn only enough to
recoup startup costs, while others may earn as much as $10,000.

“It depends on what they grow, how much time they put into it and what
their market is,” Hashley said.

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